Good Jobs and Zero Waste Now!
by Martin J. Bennett
Sonoma County residents have an historic opportunity to address two of America’s most critical 21st century issues: one is soaring economic inequality and the explosion of low-wage jobs paying less than $15 an hour; the other is global warming and the imperative to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by ending our reliance on fossil fuel. California communities have addressed both crises with “good jobs and zero waste” policies.
Two May 2017 events spotlight this opportunity for Sonoma County. First, after a five-month organizing drive for waste management workers, 400 drivers and recycling and clerical workers employed by the Ratto Group--North Bay’s largest waste management company--voted overwhelmingly to join Teamsters 665. North Bay Jobs with Justice supported the drive, working closely with the Teamsters to build a broad coalition of labor, environmental, and community organizations.
Second, more than 100 business, environmental and labor organization representatives attended the first Zero Waste Symposium in the County, organized by Sustainable North Bay. Participants discussed how wastes could be recycled, reused, and composted, to divert 90 percent or more from landfills and incinerators.
Ratto and the Crisis of Low-Wage Employment
Dominating Sonoma County’s waste management industry since the late 1990s, and providing waste hauling and recycling services for County unincorporated areas and every city except Sonoma, the Ratto Group (a North Bay Corporation subsidiary) became the North Bay’s ‘Wal-Mart of garbage.’
Ratto consistently underbid competitors to provide the lowest rates for cities and the County, while generously contributing to local elected officials’ campaigns.
However, ‘always lower prices’ invariably means paying poverty wages and providing no benefits. Ratto Group drivers averaged $16 an hour and recycling workers received barely more than the state minimum wage of $10.50 an hour. Ratto workers did receive health insurance, but no retirement benefits--critical for a physically challenging occupation like waste management. Along with big box giants, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, and hotel chains like Hyatt, the Ratto Group drives the County’s low-wage employment crisis.
According to 2015 U.S. Census data, one-third of County residents belonged to working-poor families--earning less than $48,500 yearly (for a family of four with at least one member reporting income).
The California Employment Development Department estimates that 54 percent of newly created jobs in Sonoma County between 2014-2024 will pay less than a livable wage of $22/hr.--the minimum that two parents, each working a full-time job, must earn for basic necessities and support for two children without relying on public programs, such as Medi-Cal and Food Stamps.
What a Santa Rosa Audit of the Ratto Group Revealed
The Ratto cost-cutting business model has undermined the quality of services provided. In June 2016 a City of Santa Rosa consultant audited the waste management contract and slammed the Ratto Group for many violations of its franchise agreement.
The audit discovered that Ratto was operating a rat-infested, poorly maintained and hazardous recycling facility on Standish Road in Santa Rosa without the required County Health Department permits. The consultant also found the Ratto Group out of compliance for failing to rebuild its fleet of polluting and unsafe garbage trucks; not meeting minimal 45-percent rates of waste diversion from landfill and incinerators; and for providing inadequate customer service.
In 2015 the County Health Department began assessing daily fines against Ratto (that totaled nearly $400,000 by June 2016) for operating a substandard recycling facility. The City of Santa Rosa threatened further fines totaling $17 million dollars.
In 2016 the city refused to extend the Ratto Group contract for another five years and reopened competitive bidding for the waste management contract.
Recology and Sustainable Waste Management
In January 2017, the waste management firm Recology, which serves all of San Francisco and 126 California, Oregon, and Washington communities, announced that it would purchase Ratto. The sale was finalized in early August, and Recology signed a binding agreement with the Teamsters mandating that the company will retain Ratto employees and their union.
Recology has a long track record of maintaining the highest labor, environmental, and customer service standards. Recology has operated in San Francisco as a unionized wall-to-wall company since the 1930s, providing excellent family-supporting wages and comprehensive benefits, including health and dental care, sick days, paid vacation, and retirement.